In Search of The World’s Most Expensive Potato, The Longest Submersible Road in Europe & The Perfect Storm.
14th September – We wondered if we had made a mistake leaving Oléron. As we departed the Charente Maritime for the Vendée, we drove through a featureless coastal plain to Longeville, recommended to us by Friederike and Dieter.
It was always a risk; Campsite Petit Rocher advertised that it took only one dog – which seemed to be a worrying standard in this area. On our travels, most campsites have stipulated ‘maximum 2 dogs’ although we have not yet encountered a problem checking in with four. In Longeville, however, even my “ils son tres petit et tres gentile” made no difference. The 1 dog policy was politely, yet strictly enforced.
While the campsite looked pleasant, with lots of woodland and the beach nearby, it was quite commercial. “Didn’t want to stay there anyway…” – the sour grape rebuttal of the snubbed!
As always, however, it worked out better in the long run. It was early afternoon, so we decided to push on to one of our planned stops a couple of hours further up the coast. I love arriving at new places and exploring but it is a while since I have been this excited about arriving somewhere!
People come to Noirmoutier for many reasons. Some seek the world’s most expensive potato, the Bonnotte ‘The Caviar of the Potato World’; others the longest submersible road in Europe ‘The Gois’ (pack an inflatable boat – or you can always shin up one of the refuge markers to dodge the twice daily peril of being overwhelmed by the tide!) Then there are the delightful little whitewashed, terracotta-roofed houses with blue shutters or the Black Friars, for whom the island is named; the inspiration behind the novel ‘Holy Fools’ by Joanne Harris, author of ‘Chocolat’.
Holy Fools are those who denounce worldly goods and deliberately flout society’s conventions. We didn’t do it for religious reasons but if the cap fits…!
The gentle climate for which Joanne Harris’ grandparents moved to Noirmoutier on doctor’s orders is also the reason behind Noirmoutier’s nickname; ‘The Mimosa Isle’.
We came for the windsurfing, however – and we struck gold!
Campsite Domaine le Midi was right at the centre of the sweeping, west-facing beach of Barbâtre. Windmills, always a good omen for a windsurfer, graced the shoreline to the north. We arrived with sun and a steady 18 knots of south westerly breeze blowing on shore. Paradise! Unfortunately, we had the more pressing matter of getting the caravan pitched and set up. Otherwise, we would have been straight out!
We are in a part of the Vendée which boasts an attraction known as “Le Jardin du Vent” The Garden of the Wind. Obviously, it is also famous for the Vendée Globe sailing competition. Other than the rather incongruous flying, killer squirrels, which seem to feature on the advertising boards for the area, this looks like our kind of place!
The guy at reception was really sweet. He said that normally, they only allow 2 dogs but he had seen that ours were “petit and gentile” – saving me even having to deploy my standard 4-dog justification… He said that he would charge us only for one dog, which is brilliant, since dogs are usually charged at €4 each per night…!
With the joy of arrival we felt a bit feckless and finished last night’s bottle of wine. Then we opened another one. Always a mishtayke! I took a picture of the full moon and posted it on Facebook with the caption “I used to be a vampire but I’m cured Now-OOOOO.” My friend Tim did comment that he thought I meant werewolf. That is the trouble with 2 bottles of Bergerac. You mis-spell werewolf and people think that you wrote ‘vampire’…!
Thursday – wind was forecast! We rigged and launched but probably an hour too late. Apart from the lack of wind, my only complaint was the overcrowded beach. There was not a soul to be seen! Actually we had a lovely sail, despite both getting knocked down by a rather heavy shore break. I caught and rode a couple of the lovely, rolling waves. I emerged from the shore break with a rather flattering seaweed wig!
For most people, windsurfing is something that you try on holiday with no tuition and rubbish equipment. “I tried it once. I couldn’t get the sail up and I kept falling in!” The rewards are there if you persevere, however and windsurfing is the most exhilerating sport that I have ever tried. It is up there with skiing and riding a horse; you experience the the edge of control while harnessing the surging dynamism of nature. An Arabian proverb states; “The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears.”
My friend John told me “You always remember your first wave ride.” I remember mine. I accidentally caught a large wave when windsurfing at Branksome Dene Chine. I was hurled at high speed towards the shore and deposited in an ungainly heap on the beach. The only thought going through my brain at that point was “I have absolutely GOT to do that again…”
The Hawai’ians view wave riding as a religious experience. The magical sensation of being propelled by the forces of nature down the face of a wave is hard to put into words. The best description that I can offer you is from an early observation of a Hawai’ian surfer; “He is a Mercury… A brown Mercury. His heels are winged and in them is the swiftness of the sea.”
Our German neighbour came to watch us. He had told us that used to windsurf. I doubt that these Holy Fools impressed him at all! With such light wind, I am not sure that our Mercurial heels offered the most breathtaking demonstration of capturing the swiftness of the sea!
He and his wife were very understanding, however, when Rosie and Lani paid them an impromptu visit and ate all of his little dog’s food!!!! He is a really cute little dog – they told us that they gave him a home after they found him in a forest in Poland.
Friday – Our predictive iPod just played ‘It’s Raining Again’. Thanks for letting us know! It did experiment with irony by following that with ‘Mr Blue Sky’!
The wind today was a bit more than forecast and came through earlier than expected. We were preparing for an early evening sail. We had a lazy morning but we felt the wind shaking the awning. It was time to get out there! We took the dogs to the beach; the iPod seems to have moved from predictive to spookily accurate in the foretelling; Mr Blue Sky made an actual appearance!
The windsurfing conditions were challenging – it was getting towards high tide, so the shore break was ferocious, making it difficult to launch and it was fairly wavy out the back. Considering that I haven’t windsurfed for a couple of months and haven’t ridden my small, strong-wind board since I don’t know when, I was delighted! I made my gybe (downwind turn) out the back on the face of a wave and was still planing when I flipped the rig! My fitness leaves a bit to be desired and I had to land after each run to get my breath back. My gybes were mostly dry but when I dropped the odd one, it was difficult and extremely tiring to waterstart (get back on board) in the wind shadows between the large swells.
We made the perennial mistake of those having way too much fun by opting for ‘just one more run’. Like the second bottle of wine, it is always a mistake – because when you’re just too tired, that one more run has a great propensity to result in injury!
By now, the wind was really honking; I was hugely overpowered and the sail was constantly being ripped out of my hands. Then Mark got trashed in the shore break. The wind was now so strong that he could easily have used my tiny sail but the wind caught his man-sized spinnaker and hauled him over the front. He bashed his rib on the wishbone part of his boom. We both limped back; I had a sore butt-tock as I got bounced on the sea bed beneath a wave and Mark had very bruised ribs. Nevertheless, it was a massive amount of fun and after a nearly 3 month wind drought, we are beginning to feel like proper windsurfers again!
The doggies seemed fine; we had left them home alone for the first time in the caravan while we nipped out for our hour together on the water. When we were re-united, Ruby shouted at us for about 10 minutes and refused to cuddle. Little Lani couldn’t get enough of us; she gave us an industrial licking and huge hugs! Kai was jumping around, wanting to play while Rosie just buggered off! She came back smelling of fish and I suspect that she might have taken the opportunity to explore the special sinks that are provided here for the specific purpose of washing your cockles, mussels and other shell-bound booty of ‘pêche à pied’!
On the Île d’Oléron, we got the wrong kind of wind. Here on Noirmoutier, we seemed to have found the perfect storm!
Join us next time to see how we get on with Moulins, Malodorous Mongrels and Mission Mussel!